A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it. -Marcus Aurelius
In this week’s parsha, parashat Beshalach, once Pharaoh hears that the Jews had turned around it says “וחזקתי את לב פרעה” that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to chase after them.
In the next sentence it says “ויהפך לבב פרעה” that Pharaoh’s heart was flipped.
This distinction is very interesting, because as the main understanding of “וחזקתי” is that Pharaoh was coming to a decision but wasn’t sure with himself, and God helped him feel secure about his decision. On the other hand “ויהפך” seems to imply that Pharaoh wanted to do one thing and God made him do something completely different.
So what is going on here?
To answer this question we need to first look at how the brain works. Science has figured out that we don’t come to a decision when we think we do, rather it’s preceded by subconscious activity that we are not aware of, and that turns into a conscious decision.
In my opinion, the distinction between the two words are two different perspectives on the situation, one from the perspective of Pharaoh and one from the perspective of God.
Simply God took a subconscious thought of Pharaoh to chase after the Jews and pushed it into his conscious thought.
So, from the perspective of Pharaoh it felt like his “heart was flipped”, a completely different idea that he never thought about entering his mind.
But, from God’s perspective, it was a thought that Pharaoh always had but wasn’t aware of.
In Life we come to thoughts or ideas, that feel like they simply appear out of thin air, as if blown in by the wind because someone left the window open.
But I think that we can understand from this, that thoughts come from a subconscious part of us that we don’t know so well, our deeper selves.
May we all find time to listen and learn are true selves.
By two wings a man is lifted up from things earthly: by simplicity and purity. -Thomas Kempis
After the Ten Plagues, after the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds and crossing on dry land within the sea, after the drowning and destruction of the Egyptian forces, Moses leads the freed Jewish nation into the desert. They walk for three days without finding water. On the third day, they find a stream, but its waters are bitter. Then, the Jewish people start what is to become an ongoing occurrence throughout their desert journey: they complain. Under God’s direction, Moses places a nearby piece of wood into the water, thereby sweetening the water and making it drinkable for the Jewish nation.
Immediately after this incident, God makes the following statement:
“If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”
The Bechor Shor on Exodus 15:26 tries to dig deeper into what God is referring to regarding the contrast between the diseases brought upon Egypt and preventing those same diseases from afflicting the Jewish nation, as well as the relationship between health and observance of the commandments.
He explains that it has to do with what we often call ritual purity. There are certain foods, creatures, situations, and people that we are commanded to avoid. The Egyptians paid no heed to such things and the Jewish nation got to witness firsthand the plethora of plagues and diseases that struck Egypt.
It seems that the many ritual commands, among other things, can also provide some measure of protection against those diseases. The Bechor Shor explains that the foods we are prohibited from eating are intrinsically foul and have the potential to corrupt not only our spiritual being but also to harm our physical bodies. All the laws of ritual purity, of the need to physically distance ourselves from those who are even temporarily ritually impure, are meant to prevent the transmission of some disease, that we currently can’t perceive nor understand.
May we take appropriate precautions to safeguard our health and that of those around us.
It is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation. -Hilaire Belloc
There is a common misconception about what Moses requested from Pharaoh. We’ve heard the popular “Let my people go” refrain, implying that Moses was asking for complete freedom from slavery and permanent departure from Egypt. That is not accurate. Though freedom was the final intention, what Moses repeatedly asks from Pharaoh is much more limited and specific. He asks that Pharaoh let the people go on a three-day journey into the desert where they will worship God and celebrate.
At some point in the discussions, Pharaoh gives in and says, “ok, you can go to the desert to worship your God,” but he asks, “who is going?” Moses answers: “Everyone, men, women, elderly, and children.” Pharaoh’s response is “no way. Just the men can go.”
The Bechor Shor on Exodus 10:10 wonders as to what’s going on. Why does Pharaoh care who goes to worship? He answers that Pharaoh saw through Moses’ façade. He understood that they didn’t intend to just “worship”, but rather that they planned to completely escape. That’s why Pharaoh stubbornly refuses. In one sense he’s calling Moses’ bluff. “You want to go worship? Fine. You’re free to go, but you need to leave your women and children behind until you return.” Moses couldn’t accept the offer which is why he doubles down and insists that everybody needs to go.
Having God on his side didn’t hurt Moses either, so when subsequent plagues strike Egypt culminating in the devastating Death of the Firstborns, not only does Pharaoh finally agree to Moses’ terms, but he and the Egyptian people can’t get them out fast enough. The entire Jewish people are freed to go on the three-day journey to the desert to worship God. Only after that does Moses activate the next step of the plan, to take the Jewish people out of the Egyptian empire entirely.
May we see clearly through the facades in front of us.
To Eitan Orbach and Tzivya Graff on their marriage. Mazal Tov!
For the truly faithful, no miracle is necessary. For those who doubt, no miracle is sufficient. -Nancy Gibbs
God sends Moses to free the Jewish people from bondage. Moses demands from Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves time off to go to the desert to serve God. Pharaoh condescendingly declines. Then ensues a macabre back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, interspersed by the famous Ten Plagues. Moses keeps asking for the people to be freed. Pharaoh declines. A plague hits. However, we also see Pharaoh’s reactions evolve, from outright denial to conditional and grudging agreement on which he immediately reneges once the particular plague has passed.
The first and perhaps most famous plague is the plague of blood. Aaron, Moses’ brother and co-conspirator, uses Moses’ staff and strikes the water of the Nile River. All the water turns to blood. The life source of Egypt has now turned to a source of death. All the fish in the Nile die, polluting the river and making the water undrinkable.
Curiously, we are told by the Torah that Pharaoh’s sorcerers are somehow able to replicate this feat, turning water into blood as well. This capacity leads Pharaoh to believe that Moses and Aaron’s plague of blood was not of divine nature, but rather some magical ability. He refuses to free the Jewish people.
A common question that is asked about the event is that if Aaron turned all the water to blood, what water did Pharaoh’s sorcerers convert to blood? especially, given the tradition that all of the water in Egypt turned to blood, not just that of the Nile.
The Bechor Shor on Exodus 8:20 explains that the plague of blood lasted for just a short while. However, that short while was enough to kill all of the fish in the Nile and contaminate the water for an extended period, making it undrinkable. Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to use their sorcery on the contaminated but no-longer-blood water of the Nile, transforming it again into blood. Pharaoh sees his sorcerers replicate Moses’ and Aaron’s miracle before the full extent of the plague is felt. That, combined with his sorcerers’ ability to mimic the miracle, underwhelms Pharaoh and he duly declines the request to free the Jewish slaves.
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh continues to “harden his heart” in the face of the progressive plagues and miracles, rejecting God as well as denying the Jewish people their freedom. Eventually, he and the Egyptian nation pay severely for their lack of faith and compassion.
May we appreciate the daily blessings and miracles that fill our lives.
To the peaceful transfer of government power. Not to be taken for granted.
Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil. -Edmund Burke
It is a biblical command for the Jewish people to remember the slavery we endured in Egypt and the subsequent miraculous exodus from the bondage of Egypt. Though history has shown that there are different degrees of slavery, the Jewish tradition is that Egyptian slavery was particularly cruel.
Based on that tradition, Egyptian slavery has been depicted widely in both books and film to the extent that we can readily imagine our ancestors plodding in the mud pits, under the harsh Egyptian sun, and the harsher taskmaster’s whip, as permanent prisoners of a tyrannical regime.
However, the Bechor Shor on Exodus 1:11 adds some nuance to the terms of enslavement that may not have been apparent to us. He explains that the enslavement was not constant but rather lasted for a few months at a time. He picks up on the parallel description of the much later “enslavement” which King Solomon decreed for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. King Solomon “taxed” the people, taking 30,000 men who would work for the king for a month, and then they would return home for two months, though we have no record that it was a particularly harsh situation for the conscripted men.
In a related vein, the Bechor Shor explains, the Egyptians forced the Jews into hard labor for several months at a time, and then let them go home to their families for a period, so they can support their own households until they were forced into hard labor again for a number of months. This is a cycle that continued for the long decades of Egyptian bondage. In the Egyptian case, even though the Jewish slaves had some “time off” it was still an extremely oppressive and dispiriting situation.
May we be cautious of the servitudes we get ourselves into – even if they’re not full-time.
In honor of our nephew, Mordechai Tzvi Kahen’s Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Much has been written, spoken, videoed and shared about the coronavirus pandemic we are all living through. I beg those who for whatever reason are still not taking it seriously, to please take all the requested precautions seriously. There is a natural tendency to think “it won’t happen to me.” I pray that it won’t, but the growing circle of our friends and acquaintances who have been struck by this disease is proving the foolishness of thinking anyone is more impervious than others to the disease that has run rampant around the globe. And if you have less concern for your own safety, at least please be mindful of others.
However, to the other end of the spectrum, to those who are living in dread and fear, I beg you to continue to take the requested precautions seriously, but to also be cognizant of your mental health. It is counterproductive to be so fearful that it affects your health, your wellbeing and that of those around you. Reach out. Talk to someone whom you trust or someone you think can give you the needed emotional support we all need, especially now. There is no shame in doing so.
It is indeed a time of global havoc. Not just health-wise, but also economic. Most of us have not seen such widespread dislocation in our lives. Many are on the front-line, saving lives from this invisible enemy. Many are supporting that effort. Many are wondering how they will survive the economic turmoil. Many are suffering in isolation; many because they are alone; many because they aren’t. The turmoil, pain, and despair are real.
Many platitudes can be given about being strong, about having faith, about this being an opportunity for growth. I believe in them. However, I also know that they will fall on deaf ears for those in the grip of fear. For those who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those millions of people globally who are now unemployed and have no idea how they will generate income. I don’t know the answers. And that brings me to Pesach.
Our ancestors, more than 3,300 years ago, faced tremendous uncertainty. Others have already written about the parallels to the deadly plague of the firstborns which forced the Jews to remain locked in their homes on Pesach night. I want to focus on the uncertainties they faced. There was a massive shift in the world order occurring in those days. The mightiest empire on Earth, the powerful, centuries-strong Egyptian empire was ravaged by plagues. The Jewish people, a slave caste, was on the brink of not just freedom, but of being cut off from the only source of sustenance and employment they had known for generations. They were about to leave the only homes and possessions they knew. They were to follow Moses into the unknown, into the harsh, lifeless desert, with only the command of an unknowable God to back up the claims of His first prophet.
Did they not have reason to fear? Did they not have reason to distrust Moses and His invisible God? Did they not have a reason for cynicism? They did. However, we are the descendants of those who believed. We are the descendants of those who took a leap of faith. We are the descendants of those who had the courage, the strength, the spiritual drive to step into the unknown; to believe in an all-powerful God and His prophet; to believe in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to believe in the ancient promises, the divine covenant between God and our patriarchs. We believed. It is that unshakeable belief that has sustained our people through the most pernicious and devastating horrors humanity could inflict on us for over three millennia. We persevere. We stand, even with a sense of triumph. The triumph of being on the side of eternity.
We are an ancient people. We have seen empires rise and fall. We have seen civilizations built, destroyed and rebuilt. We have experienced and survived war, famine, wild beasts and plague. We can handle this. We shall overcome.
May this Seder, whether we are doing it alone, on our own, in smaller or different circumstances than we’re used to, be a meaningful Seder. May it be a reaffirmation of our unbreakable connection to our past Exodus; may it be a signal of our upcoming Exodus. May it signify our freedom. Our freedom from fear, our freedom from not just the microscopic plague that ails humanity but also the spiritual plagues that have infected our society. When we eat the Matza, that long-lasting poor man’s bread, may it be more heartfelt. When we drink the four cups of wine, symbolizing salvation, may we do so with greater significance. When we invite Elijah the Prophet to our home, may it be with greater emotion. And when we pray and sing to celebrate all together in a rebuilt Jerusalem next year, may we really mean it.
Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, joyous and inspiring Pesach.
Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,
Correction on last week’s post: my dear friend, Rabbi Gad Dishi, pointed out that my interpretation of last week’s Meshech Chochma was not as accurate as possible. I translated the term “minim” as ancient atheists and understood the Meshech Chochma to be referring to people at the time of the Temple. Rabbi Dishi correctly pointed out that the Meshech Chochma appears to be referring to post-Temple Christians and their Eucharist service. However, the more accurate translation doesn’t change the gist or message of what I wrote.
You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes. -Walter Schirra Sr.
Before Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he tells the people of Israel that he’s leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. However, we never hear about Hur ever again. The Midrash says that Hur rejected the people’s request to construct the Golden Calf, and in their rage, they killed him. Aaron, understanding that he would be the next victim, and in an effort to prevent more bloodshed (his own), gave in to the request and made them the infamous Golden Calf.
When things eventually calm down, God chooses Hur’s grandson, Betzalel, as the main architect and designer of the Tabernacle, with the exclusive task of personally making the holiest piece, the Ark of the Covenant.
What is highly unusual about the Ark, and which likely raised eyebrows initially as it does in a sense to this day, is that God ordered that the Ark cover would have not only one but two figures, two little idols of cherubs facing each other.
How could it be that the same God who shows such abhorrence to graven images, who was ready to wipe out the entire nation of Israel because of their worship of the Golden Calf, could command the construction of figures to be placed on the holiest object, an object which symbolizes his most concentrated presence on earth?
There are multiple answers the rabbinic commentators provide to the question and I’ve given some of their answers in previous years (see Vayakel archive). However, according to the Meshech Chochma on Exodus 37:1, whatever the rationale, that Ark and those cherubs needed to be fashioned with the utmost purity of purpose, without any hint whatsoever of idolatrous intention.
That, according to him, is one of the reasons why Betzalel was such a perfect choice for the job. His grandfather, Hur, had fought, resisted and gave his life in the struggle against idolatry. By his upbringing and nature, Betzalel would have an abhorrence to idolatry. He would bring a complete purity of purpose in the creation of the Ark and its accompanying images, without a sliver of thought, without a notion of idolatry.
Hur’s heroic sacrifice helped form his grandson’s character. That grandson becomes a partner with God in the creation of the holiest items on earth.
May we see them returned, to the rebuilt Temple, speedily and in our days.
To all those on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every man is an omnibus in which his ancestors ride. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
This week’s Torah reading contains the famous episode of the Golden Calf. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. After forty days and nights, the people of Israel became anxious, and feeling leaderless, demanded of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that he make an idol for them. Aaron grudgingly does so.
The next morning the people of Israel worship the Golden Calf. They do this at the foot of Mount Sinai, forty days after having heard the voice of God, three months after having been miraculously liberated from Egypt. God is understandably furious (whatever that means theologically). God is ready to destroy the nation of Israel. He informs Moses of his plan to wipe out all of Israel and start over again with Moses as the Patriarch of a new nation that would ostensibly remain loyal and steadfast in their devotion to God.
This is where Moses steps in. He prays to God. His prayer is so strong, so sharp, so convincing, that he somehow gets God to stay His wrath. (Parts of his prayer are used in our liturgies to this day).
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:8 digs a little deeper and wonders as to what gave Moses the insight, the clarity and the wisdom to articulate such an effective prayer and thereby save the entire nation of Israel.
He answers based on the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) which says that Moses prayed until he felt “fire in his bones.” The Meshech Chochma details that the reference to “fire in his bones” is that Moses prayed to God for forgiveness for Israel about the Golden Calf until he felt in his bones that he also had the same fault. Only when Moses reached that point of understanding and identification with the sin of Israel, was he able to achieve forgiveness for Israel.
What aspect of the sin was in Moses’ “bones?” The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 31a) states that a characteristic that a father bequeaths to his son is his bones. The Midrash based on the Book of Judges tells us that Moses’ grandson Yehonatan was guilty of worshipping idols. That gave Moses the opening to say to God: “God, you want to make a new nation from me? In my family, I will also have this fault of idol worship.”
So Moses’ understanding and identification with his future grandson’s idolatry somehow saved the nation of Israel from being punished for that same crime.
May we identify with our progeny, and they with us.
A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone. -Billy Graham
The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 31a) tells the unusual case where one of the twelve precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate fell out and was lost. The sages needed to find a replacement for this rare and valuable stone. They found such a stone by a non-Jew in Ashkelon by the name of Dama son of Netina. The sages approached Dama with a great sense of urgency:
“I’d love to sell you the stone,” Dama says, “but the key to my safe is under my father’s pillow. He’s currently sleeping and I won’t wake him up, even for the generous sum that you’re offering.”
The sages leave and presumably find another stone elsewhere. Dama’s great care and respect for his father lost him a tremendous business deal.
God, however, did not forget Dama’s respect for his father. The following year, when the sages found themselves in need of a Red Heifer (a rare and valuable animal required for a vital purification ritual in Temple times), it turned out that Dama was the only one that had one in his herd. The sages found themselves at Dama’s door once again, and Dama knew that he could command an exorbitant price for the Red Heifer due to the circumstance of him having the only one at the time. However, Dama contented himself with charging the amount that he would have gotten for the precious stone he didn’t sell the year before. Thus, God made sure Dama didn’t lose in the end because of his great respect for his father and indeed, Dama’s name has since stood for centuries as a paragon of parental respect.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 28:9, where we have the listing of the different precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate, points out a biblical link to Dama’s story. The stone that went missing in Dama’s story was the Yashphe, the stone that represented the Tribe of Benjamin. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Benjamin was the only one who hadn’t caused his father grief and showed the utmost respect to Jacob (ten of the brothers participated in the sale of Joseph to Egypt – perhaps the biggest anguish in Jacob’s life; and according to the Midrash, in a fashion, Joseph himself was a party to the conspiracy, by remaining quiet about it afterward).
It was therefore appropriate, that the son who demonstrated the greatest respect to his father would merit that God’s concentrated presence, via the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, would reside in his tribal allotment. We find that throughout the centuries of movements of the Tabernacle, it always remained within the tribal portion of Benjamin and the final address of the Ark, in the permanent structure of the Temple, also fell in the portion of Benjamin.
May we always demonstrate proper respect for our parents.
Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need. -Gaston Bachelard
After the historic divine revelation at Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to build a Sanctuary, the Tabernacle. The Torah provides extreme detail as to the composition, construction, and measurements of the inner components of the Tabernacle as well as to its structural elements.
The central and most famous component of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant, where the two tablets containing the newly received Ten Commandments were stored. (It is not, contrary to popular belief, being held in a US government warehouse, after being rescued from the Nazis by Indiana Jones…).
A curious design feature of the Ark is that it has two poles for carrying it. Well, that’s not the curious part. The curious part is that there is an explicit command that those two poles may never be removed from the Ark, even when there is no longer a need for them and nobody is carrying the Ark.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 25:11-18 learns a deep lesson as to the necessity of permanently leaving the carrying poles in an Ark that is not being carried.
He explains that we misunderstand the role of the poles and by extension, God’s role and relationship to us.
The poles are not there to carry the Ark. The Ark, in some metaphysical fashion which we don’t understand but that the Talmud verifies (Tractate Sotah 35a), carries itself. In fact, not only does the Ark carry itself, but it actually carries the people who think they’re carrying the Ark.
To support his argument further, the Meshech Chochma brings the example of the second most famous component of the Tabernacle, the Candelabrum, the Menorah. According to Maimonides, the Menorah was lit not only at night but also during the day. Why light the scarce and precious olive oil during the day when there is no need for illumination? The Meshech Chochma explains that it comes to make the same point. God doesn’t need the light; not at night and not during the day. By lighting the Menorah during the day, the obvious lack of a practical physical purpose demonstrates that God doesn’t need it. The same point is made by the poles. The Ark doesn’t need the poles, and by having them permanently attached, even when at rest, it further demonstrates that at a deeper, fundamental level, they are not really needed.
Ultimately, these physical examples inform our own relationship with and service to God. God doesn’t need it. God manages and will manage just fine without us. However, He wants us. He does want a relationship with us. He does want us to reach out to Him. He does want us to connect. Not because He needs us, but rather, because He wants us.